Asia Program

China Remains Committed to Cooperative U.S. Relations, Experts Insist

Jul 13, 1999

by Zhao Li

Despite the derailing of US-China relations, Chinese leaders remain committed to a cooperative relationship with the United States, according to veteran China watchers Michael Armacost, Doug Paal and Harry Harding. All three had visited China recently and were reporting on their impressions at a July 13 Capitol Hill briefing hosted by the Center's Asia Program, the National Committee on United States-China Relations, and U.S. representatives Doug Bereuter and Tom Lantos.

China is looking to the U.S. to make the next move in improving the relationship, the speakers said. "Let those who tied the knot untie it," Armacost quoted a Chinese official. Two of the principal knots are the Belgrade bombing and stalled WTO negotiations. If the political obstacles can be surmounted, negotiations on WTO and the Belgrade bombing can be completed, the panelists agreed. They urged leaders on both sides to conclude negotiations on these difficult issues soon.

"All the easy work has been done" over the past ten years, Harding said, "now there is only hard work left." Adding to the list of difficult tasks, Paal recommended that Beijing and Washington also work toward resuming dialogues on human rights, nonproliferation, and military-to-military exchanges.

The speakers also agreed that even though the likelihood of the United States and China achieving any major progress in the next 18 months is small, the two countries should be able to manage their relationship without doing any further damage. "The roadmap [the Chinese] laid out for the United States is not an unworkable formula," said Paal. "We ought to be able to put these issues behind us."

"I didn't return with a sense that the relationship is irreversibly in a downward spiral," reported Michael Armacost, president of the Brookings Institution and former undersecretary of state. Despite the concerns, frustrations, and even anger toward the United States, he noted, his Beijing interlocutors insisted on the need for a cooperative relationship with Washington. Douglas Paal, who was a senior official in the National Security Council during the Bush administration, agreed and said that he found "the short-term prospects for US-China relations not as dire as one might have feared." According to Paal, the fact that Beijing is still receptive to unofficial delegations from the United States is an indication that Beijing is not ready to sever ties with Washington.

Cooperation or Competition?

Acknowledging China's desire for a good relationship with the United States, the American experts said their recent trips to China had given them the impression that the Chinese have developed an equally strong – but perhaps contradictory – ambition to balance, or even counter, overwhelming US economic and military power. Paal sensed various levels of discomfort among top Chinese officials regarding China's foreign policy toward the United States. Most China watchers view as crucial the deliberations this August in Beidaihe, a traditional summer retreat for Chinese decision makers providing an opportunity to reconcile their differences in a private and intimate setting. Paal believed that the outcome of the Beidaihe discussions would "permit the resumption of US-China ties."

One of the fundamental difficulties between Washington and Beijing lies in their different visions of the world order, the panelists pointed out. The U.S. has sought to integrate China into an international system led by Washington. Harding said that leaders in Beijing welcome such integration, while remaining unwilling to accept U.S. leadership. Most Chinese believe that China has been the target of unfair and unrelenting pressure from the U.S. over the past ten years. Many Chinese viewed the Belgrade embassy bombing as the culmination of this decade-long pressure, part of a pattern versus an isolated incident.

Attitudes of Chinese Youth

"I am particularly concerned about the attitude of the younger generation of Chinese," Harding said. The post-Tiananmen generation, observed Harding, has grown politically conscious. However, compared to the political views of those at Tiananmen Square ten years ago, the younger generation has far less sympathy toward the United States.

The anti-American sentiment displayed outside the American embassy following the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, according to Harding, "was not artificially created" by the Chinese government. The image of the bombed-out embassy in Belgrade, Harding warned, may be as enduring and pivotal for Chinese audiences as images of a bombed-out Tiananmen have been for American audiences.

Taiwan Looming Large Again

An immediate problem on the already-long list of difficulties between China and the United States is Taiwan. Remarks on July 9 by ROC President Lee Tenghui and a ROC cabinet member declaring that mainland-Taiwan relations are "state to state" relations will undoubtedly complicate US-China ties, panelists said. "Taiwan took a big leap forward toward independence," said Paal, admitting that Taipei's move had caught him by surprise.

The experts agreed that the United States would likely be forced to clarify its policy of ambiguity regarding the Taiwan Strait. While it is too early to predict the consequences of Taiwan's move and the appropriate US response, it is almost certain that the Taiwanese presidential elections in March of 2000, at the height of the US presidential primary season, will be a complicating factor for the United States, and for US-China relations.

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